Psychology and Sexual Minorities: Removing the Stigma, 40 Years On

Not so long ago, homosexuality was triply stigmatized.

Throughout much of the 20th century, in addition to being condemned as a sin and prosecuted as a crime, it was assumed by the mental health professions to be an illness.

Although that assumption was never based on valid scientific research, the stigma attached to homosexuality impelled untold numbers of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to seek a cure for their condition. Others were coerced into treatment after being arrested or hospitalized.

Psychologists and psychiatrists used a variety of techniques on them, ranging from talk therapy to electroshock, aversive conditioning, lobotomies, hormone injections, hysterectomies, and castrations.

None were effective.

Meanwhile, new research was challenging orthodox beliefs about homosexuality and prompting some mental health professionals and researchers to question the validity of the sickness model.

Alfred Kinsey’s studies revealed that same-sex attraction and behavior were much more common than had been widely believed. Clellan Ford and Frank Beach showed that homosexual behavior was common across human societies and in other species.

And Evelyn Hooker documented the existence of well-adjusted gay men. She also demonstrated that experts in the “diagnosis” of homosexuality could not distinguish between the Rorschach protocols of well-functioning gay and heterosexual men at a level better than chance.

The larger society was also changing. By the 1960s, gay and lesbian activists were challenging the notion that they were mentally ill.

Psychiatric and psychological orthodoxy proved unable to withstand the critical scrutiny that these developments brought. On December 15, 1973, millions of people suddenly found themselves free of mental illness when the American Psychiatric Association’s Board of Directors voted to remove homosexuality as a diagnosis from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

It was arguably the biggest mass cure in the modern history of mental health.

Then, meeting in late January of 1975 – almost exactly 40 years ago – the American Psychological Association (APA) Council of Representatives voted to support the psychiatrists’ action, affirming that:

“Homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social and vocational capabilities.”

This complete reversal in the status accorded to homosexuality by the mental health profession’s two largest and most influential organizations was to have a huge impact.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people would no longer have to grow up assuming they are sick. Reputable psychologists and psychiatrists would no longer tell them they can and should become heterosexual. Because a characteristic that isn’t an illness doesn’t need treatment, the raison d’etre for attempting to cure homosexuality vanished.

Nearly all therapists eventually abandoned their efforts to make gay people straight. New therapeutic approaches were developed that affirm the value of gay, lesbian, and bisexual identities and same-sex relationships while assisting sexual minorities in coping with the challenges created by societal stigma. These approaches are now integral to the education, training, and practice of psychologists and other mental health professionals.

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But the significance of this year’s 40th anniversary extends further. The APA’s 1975 resolution also urged mental health professionals

“to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientations.”

Thus, the Association committed itself to advocacy, lobbying, and educational efforts on behalf of sexual minorities. It has since followed through by promoting research and communicating scientific and clinical knowledge about sexual orientation to the courts, elected officials, policy makers, educators, and the general public.

Notably, these efforts have included filing amicus briefs in more than 40 major federal and state court cases involving the rights of sexual minorities. Roughly half of those cases involved legal recognition of same-sex couples. Others addressed state sodomy laws, discrimination, restrictions on military service, parenting rights, and related issues.

Drawing from empirical research, the APA briefs have explained important facts about sexual orientation:

that it is a central component of identity and relationships, not amenable to change through external interventions
that it is unrelated to a person’s ability to contribute to society
that children raised by sexual minority parents or same-sex couples do not differ in adjustment from children raised by heterosexual parents
that the psychological characteristics of same-sex and different-sex committed relationships do not fundamentally differ.

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In April, when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments for four marriage equality cases, the APA will file another amicus brief summarizing current scientific knowledge and professional opinion about sexual orientation, committed intimate relationships, parenting, and related topics.

In doing so, the Association will continue to honor its pledge to take the lead in “removing the stigma.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 7.39.16 PM copyDr. Gregory Herek
Professor
UC Davis Department of Psychology

Professor Herek is an internationally recognized authority on prejudice against sexual minorities, anti-gay violence, and AIDS-related stigma. He received his Ph.D. in social psychology from UC Davis in 1983, then was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. He subsequently served as a faculty member at Yale and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York before returning to UCD, first as a research psychologist and later as a tenured professor. You can follow him on Twitter and his blog Beyond Homophobia.